China Customs Cracks Down on Trafficking of Totoaba Swim Bladders

The smuggling of endangered species’ organs threatens the vaquita

SANTA MONICA, CA – Chinese Customs recently announced the results of its crackdown on a totoaba fish maw smuggling gang in 2018, which resulted in the arrest of 16 gang members and the seizure of approximately 980 pounds of totoaba smim bladders, equivalent to an estimated $26.4 million. The case is still under investigation, but preliminary findings reveal that the criminal gang, which operated out of multiple Chinese provinces, illegally purchased the totoaba swim bladders in Mexico’s Gulf of California, and smuggled them in luggage through several countries, before arriving in China. This crackdown is one of the most successful cases in combating the smuggling of endangered species. 

The following is a statement from Zak Smith, Senior Attorney for the Nature Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

“The Chinese Government is stepping up to meet its commitment to eradicate the illegal totoaba trade in China. We hope the Mexican government will implement equally vigorous enforcement efforts to combat totoaba trafficking. We desperately need international cooperation to eliminate trade in tototaba, which is driving the endangered vaquita porpoise, of which there are less than 15 left in the world, to extinction.”  


Facing extinction, the totoaba is listed as an Appendix I species under CITES, meaning international commercial trade of the fish is prohibited. Endemic to the Gulf of California in Mexico, the totoaba is poached for Chinese cuisine and gifts, under the false assumption that it could treat health problems or provide other benefits. Illegal totoaba fishing in Mexico also threatens the vaquita, a critically endangered porpoise listed under the Endangered Species Act, because vaquita become entangled and then drown in gillnets originally set to capture totoaba. For more information about trilateral efforts between the United States, China, and Mexico to eradicate totoaba trafficking and to save the vaquita, read "China Joins Fight to Save the Vaquita as the Mexican Porpoise Slides Closer to Extinction."

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